Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crazy cake decorators push the possibilities

The cake decorating world was turned upside down by the advent of the edible image, putting any conceivable design directly onto the creamy frosting of a grocery store cake. But a look at the avant-garde cakes of today shows that bakers still are stretching for that next creative tier.

Rainbow sprinkles, piping bags and edible images have given way to fondant, gum paste, icing and a naked canvas, aka the cake. Think topsy-turvy, 6-foot-tall structures garnished with sparklers, twinkling lights, automatic bubbles, smoky dry ice and even small-scale explosives.

Much of the credit for these crazy designs goes to television shows such as "Ace of Cakes," "Cake Boss" and "Food Network Challenge," which have given bakers and consumers big ideas about what defines a masterpiece.

And Austin has its own collection of cake designers who have dispensed with simplicity for the no-holds-barred style of cake madness. In fact, TLC announced Monday that Austinites will be able to cheer on hometown decorator Brian Stevens next month (Dec. 6) on its new reality cake competition show "Next Great Baker," a spinoff of "Cake Boss."

Stevens, the owner of Crazy Cakes, is still relatively a novice in his cake designs. He was an artist long before he started experimenting with his baked, 3-D sculptures. He spent years as a digital illustrator for video games companies such as Electronic Arts and currently Sony. Yet it was a fated encounter with the Dark Knight 31/2 years ago that inspired Stevens to cross over into a different medium outside of animation and into the kitchen.

"My son got this Batman cake for his second birthday, and I thought it looked amazing. I remember thinking, 'I want to do that,' " Stevens said. "So, for his next birthday, I made a SpongeBob cake."

His first attempt in cake artistry proved that he had the knack.

The cake had a neon-yellow fondant skin and chestnut brown shorts. Rather than a flat two-dimensional frosted cake, Stevens' 3-D version practically brought the Nickelodeon character to life. (Before SpongeBob, Stevens' only pastry experience was with $1 cake mixes.)

His SpongeBob cake might have cost him $150 in materials, but his passion for design (cakes and video) was reinvigorated. "From then on, I was just hooked. I wanted to do more," Stevens said.

He still does digital design, but finds that his cakes are more gratifying than games.

"I could spend all my time (and) energy in video games, but inevitably I have 60-80 people complaining about the finished product," Stevens said. "With cakes, I have kids' jaws dropping and parents in awe. You inspire people to do something they never thought about doing, and that's why I love cakes."

For one Thanksgiving, he constructed a 12-pound turkey-sized dinner roll cake smothered with yellow and white fondant for the melted butter. And for a birthday party, Stevens created an emerald 15-inch Tyrannosaurus rex rising from the vapors of hot crimson rocks (the vapors were courtesy of a water-based fog machine.)

His biggest triumph? Gollum, the frightful antagonist from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Stevens worked for 48 hours to capture the crucial moment as the emaciated, grey creature with webbed hands and feet finally gets his hands on the Ring, the object of his desire. The 2-foot structure won him second place in the 2010 fantasy/science fiction category at Austin's That Takes the Cake competition. The glossy fondant figure with its dainty, pulled-sugar hair managed to startle even its creator.

"My Gollum cake was my most expressive, realistic creation," Stevens said. "I wanted to capture this crucial moment and expression where you want to reach out and grab the ring from him."

Stevens won't be the first Austinite to find cake decorating fame on television. Jennifer Bartos has made several appearances on the "Food Network Challenge" designing cakes alongside cake decorator Bronwen Weber.

Her over-the-top, wacky structures were constructed under time constraints based on the episode's chosen theme. For the Incredible Edible Mansions episode, Bartos and Weber won with their recreation of Austin's John Bremond Mansion, made with a gingerbread facade.

Bartos, the owner of the All in One Bake Shop, decided to take a break this spring from designing and instead teach pastry and pastry art classes to customers.

Even though Bartos has hung her hat as a full-time cake designer, she can't imagine ever fully checking out of the cake world.

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